How to prevent repetitive strain injury (RSI) at work

How to prevent repetitive strain injury (RSI) at work

If you thought having an office job would exclude you from work related injuries other than a paper cut, you would be wrong. Working in an office often means performing repetitive tasks and spending hours in awkward or uncomfortable positions. These actions, and others specific to the daily tasks of office workers, put you at risk for developing Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

When I moved into an administrative nursing position, I reduced my risk for some potential physical injuries resulting from providing hands-on nursing care. However, my upper body remains susceptible to injury from overuse if I don’t maintain awareness, and practice preventative measures with workplace ergonomics, to reduce my risk for RSI.

What is RSI?

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) describes the pain in muscles, nerves and tendons due to repetitive movements and overuse. RSI can affect almost any moveable part of the body but usually affects the upper limbs such as the neck, shoulders, forearms and hands. RSI is not always specific to one disorder, but is more like a family of disorders. Modern technology has caused an increase in the incidents of RSI and made it one of the most common occupational health problems according to the Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The repetitive motions performed with the technology utilized for office work increases your risk for RSI. Consider how you spend most of your day. There’s a good chance much of that time is spent typing, reaching for and clicking your mouse or staring at a computer screen. These are all necessary tasks when you use a computer regularly, and often we continue to use these same muscles when we are not working through texting and home computer use. These muscles are exposed to repeated trauma day after day with little rest. This can result in strain and microscopic tears to muscles and tendons of the wrists, forearms and fingers. The injured muscles contract, resulting in less range of motion. Our tendons don’t have the opportunity to rest and can become inflamed. This results in pain, numbness, or hypersensitivity.

Pains and strains associated with RSI

RSI can be due to bad posture, awkward positions and repetitive tasks. Cold temperatures and stress can aggravate the symptoms. RSI can present with mild to severe symptoms and usually develops gradually. The cause of discomfort might not be immediately apparent, since the repetitive motion in one part of the body can affect the muscles in another. Such as when you repeatedly reach for the computer mouse, it can affect the muscles of your neck. Symptoms can worsen with psychological stress, poor posture, and continued overuse. You might only notice discomfort during the action, but this may become more constant with longer periods of pain, or swelling.

Your physician can help identify RSI with a physical exam, questions about repetitive tasks and whether the symptoms fade once you stop performing the task.

Symptoms of RSI can include:

  • Tenderness or pain in the affected muscle or joint
  • Throbbing or tingling sensation in the hand or arm
  • Pulsing sensation in the affected area
  • Weakness or a loss of sensation
  • Burning and aching
  • A heightened awareness of the joint or muscle

Types of RSI

When asked about a common office musculoskeletal injury, many think of carpal tunnel syndrome. This RSI results from nerve compression and results in numbness, weakness in the hand and wrist, and can extend up the body. But there are many more strains and injuries of the musculoskeletal system associated with RSI.

  • Type 1 RSI– Is usually caused by repetitive tasks. It exhibits with swelling and inflammation of specific muscles or tendons. This includes carpal tunnel syndrome, but also tendonitis, tenosynovitis, rotator cuff syndrome, epicondylitis (tennis and golfer’s elbow), ganglion and several others.
  • Type 2 RSI– Is a general feeling of pain or discomfort with no obvious inflammation. Sometimes known as non-specific pain syndrome.

If some of these symptoms sound familiar, you might want to check with your employer to see if you can modify your tasks, or your environment, to try to relieve your symptoms.

How can you help prevent RSI?

Regardless of the diagnosis, if ignored or left untreated, this pain and discomfort can begin to reduce your work productivity and your ability to perform usual tasks outside of your job. You can begin making some adjustments on your own to help reduce your discomfort. If you have a sedentary lifestyle, or already have other medical conditions like arthritis or diabetes, you could already be at an increased risk. It can be difficult to eliminate all behaviors if your work is the cause, but you can make efforts to reduce your risk by considering ergonomics.

Prevent RSI at the office by:

  • Adjusting the position of your desk or alternating between sitting and standing with a standing desk.
  • Ensuring your chair has appropriate support.
  • Being aware of your posture.
  • Using an external mouse rather than the laptop mouse touch pad when using a laptop for longer periods.
  • Giving your eyes a break to reduce strain.
  • Walking over to talk to your coworker instead of emailing.
  • Utilizing an alarm to remind you to stretch and take breaks.
  • Dressing in layers, or keep a sweater at work to maintain a comfortable temperature.
  • Utilizing a telephone headset.

Prevent RSI at home by:

  • Reducing time on your home computer.
  • Limiting smartphone use and texting.
  • Being aware of your posture while driving.
  • Increasing exercise.
  • Practicing stretches or yoga.

Doctor’s orders

  • Splinting or other elastic support
  • Physical therapy
  • Heat or cold treatments
  • Get a massage or give yourself a massage

Don’t be another RSI statistic

The statistics for RSI have risen over the years as we incorporate more time working with technology at the office, and at home. There are some things we can’t avoid if they’re essential to complete tasks for our job. Although if we maintain an awareness of ourselves, and our environment, our efforts today to improve our workplace practices could help reduce our risk of RSI tomorrow.


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